Story type: Essay
To make it people’s interest to advance you, by showing that their business will be better done by you than by any other person, is the only solid foundation of success; the rest is accident.
—Reynolds to His Nephew
On the curious little river Plym, five miles from Plymouth, is the hamlet of Plympton. It is getting on towards two hundred years since Joshua Reynolds was born there. The place has not changed so very much with the centuries: there still stand the quaint stone houses, built on arches over the sidewalk, and there, too, is the old Norman church with its high mullioned windows. Chester shows the best example of that very early architecture, and Plympton is Chester done in pigmy.
The birthplace of Reynolds is one of these houses in the “Row”; a greengrocer now has the lower floor of the house for his shop, while his numerous family live upstairs.
The Reverend Samuel Reynolds also had a numerous family–there being eleven children–so the present occupation is a realistic restoration of a previous condition.
The grocer has a leaning toward art, for his walls are well papered with chromos and posters; and as he sold a cabbage to a good housewife he nipped off a leaf for a pen of rabbits that stood in the doorway, and talked to me glibly of Reynolds and Gainsborough. The grocer considers Gainsborough the greater artist, and surely his fame is wide, like unto the hat–hated by theater-goers–that his name has rendered deathless, and which certain unkind ones declare has given him immortality. Joshua was the seventh child in the brood of five boys and six girls. The fond parents set him apart for the Church, and to that end he was placed in the Plympton Grammar-School, and made to “do” fifty lines of Ovid a day.
The old belief that to translate Latin with facility was the true test of genius has fallen somewhat into desuetude, yet there are a few who still hold to the idea that to reason, imagine and invent are not the tests of a man’s powers; he must conjugate, decline and derive. But Grant Allen, possessor of three college degrees, avers that a man may not even be able to read and write, and yet have a very firm mental grasp on the eternal verities.
Anyway, Joshua Reynolds did not like Latin. He hated the set task of fifty lines, and hated the system that imposed a fine of twenty lines for a failure to fulfil the first.
The fines piled up until young Joshua, aged twelve, goin’ on thirteen, went into such hopeless bankruptcy that he could not pay tuppence on the pound.
We have a sheet of this Latin done at that time, in a cramped, schoolboy hand, starting very bold and plain, and running off into a tired blot and scrawl. On the bottom of the page is a picture, and under this is a line written by the father: “This is drawn by Joshua in school out of pure idleness.” The Reverend Samuel had no idea that his own name would live in history simply because he was the father of this idle boy.
Still, the clergyman showed that he was a man of good sense, for he acceded to the lad’s request to let the Latin slide. This conclusion no doubt was the easier arrived at after the master of the school had explained that the proper education of such a youth was quite hopeless.
All the Reynolds children drew pictures and most of them drew better than Joshua. But Joshua did not get along well at school, and so he felt the necessity of doing something.
It is a great blessing to be born into a family where strict economy of time and money is necessary. The idea that nothing shall be wasted, and that each child must carve out for himself a career, is a thrice-blessed heritage.
Rich parents are an awful handicap to youth, and few indeed there be who have the strength to stand prosperity; especially is this true when prosperity is not achieved, but thrust upon them.
Joshua got hold of a copy of Richardson’s “Theory of Painting,” and found therein that the author prophesied the rise of a great school of English painters.
Joshua thought about it, talked with his brothers and sisters about it, and surprised his mother by asking her if she knew that there was soon to be a distinct school of British Art.
About this time there came to the village a strolling artist by the name of Warmell. This man opened up a studio on the porch of the tavern and offered to make your picture while you wait. He did a thriving business in silhouettes, and patrons who were in a hurry could have their profiles cut out of black paper with shears and pasted on a white background in a jiffy–price, sixpence.
Joshua struck up quite a friendship with this man and was taught all the tricks of the trade–even to the warning that in drawing the portrait of a homely man it is not good policy to make a really homely picture.
The best-paying pewholder in the Reverend Samuel Reynolds’ church was a Mr. Craunch, whose picture had been made by the joint efforts of the strolling artist Warmell and young Reynolds. ‘T was a very beautiful picture, although it is not on record that Mr. Craunch was a handsome man.
Warmell refused to take pay for Craunch’s picture, claiming that he felt it was pay enough to have the honor of such a great man sitting to him. This remark proved to Craunch that Warmell was a discerning person and they were very soon on intimate terms of friendship. Mr. Craunch gave Mr. Warmell orders to paint pictures of the Craunch family. One day Warmell called the great man’s attention to the fact that young Reynolds, his volunteer assistant, had ambitions in an art way that could not be gratified unless some great and good man stepped in and played the part of a Maecenas.
In fact, Joshua wanted to go to London and study with Hudson, the son-in-law and pupil of Richardson, the eminent author who wrote the “Theory of Painting.” Warmell felt sure that after a few months, with his help, young Reynolds could get the technique and the color-scheme, and a’ that, and the firm of Warmell and Reynolds could open a studio in Plymouth or Portsmouth and secure many good orders.
Craunch listened with patience and advised with the boy’s parents.
The next week he took the lad up to London and entered him as a pupil with the great Hudson, who could not paint much of a picture himself, but for a consideration was willing to show others how.
Rumor has it that Warmell got a certain sum in English gold for all pupils he sent to Hudson’s studio, but I take no stock in such insinuations.
Warmell here disappears from mortal view, like one of those stage trapdoor vanishings of Mephisto–only Mephisto usually comes back, but Warmell never did.
Reynolds was very happy at Hudson’s studio. He was only seventeen years old when he arrived there, fresh from the country. London was a marvel of delight to Joshua; the shops, theaters, galleries and exhibitions were a never-ending source of joy. He worked with diligence, and probably got more for his money than any one of Hudson’s fifty pupils. Hudson was well-to-do, dignified and kind. His place was full of casts and classic fragments, and when he had set his pupils to copying these he considered his day’s work done.
Joshua wrote glowing letters home, telling of all he did. “While I am at work I am the happiest creature alive,” he said. Hudson set Joshua to copying Guercino’s works, and kept the lad at it so steadily that he was really never able to draw from Nature correctly thereafter.
After a year, Craunch came up from the country to see how his ward was getting along. Joshua showed him the lions of the city; and painted his picture, making so fine a portrait that when Mr. Craunch got back home he threw away the one made by Warmell.
Once at an exhibition Joshua met Alexander Pope, whom he had seen several times at Hudson’s studio. Pope remembered him and shook hands. Joshua was so inflated by the honor that he hastened home to write a letter to his mother and tell her all about it.
According to the terms of agreement with Hudson, Joshua was bound to stay four years; but now two years had passed, and one fine day in sudden wrath Hudson told him to pack up his kit and go.
The trouble was that Joshua could paint better than Hudson–every pupil in the school knew it. When the scholars wanted advice they went to Reynolds, and some of them, being sons of rich men, paid Reynolds for helping them.
Then Reynolds had painted a few portraits on his own account and had kept the money, as he had a perfect right to do. Hudson said he hadn’t, for he was bound as an apprentice to him.
“But only during working-hours,” replied young Reynolds. We can hardly blame Hudson for sending him away–no master wants a pupil around who sees all over, above and beyond him, and who can do better work than he. It’s confusing, and tends to rob the master of the deification that is his due.
Reynolds had remained long enough–it was time for him to go.
He went back to Devonshire, and Craunch, the biggest man in Plympton, took him over to Lord Edgecumbe, the biggest man in Plymouth.
Craunch carried along the portrait of himself that Joshua had made, and asked milord if he didn’t want one just like it. Edgecumbe said he surely did, and asked Joshua if he painted the picture all alone by himself.
Lord Edgecumbe had a beautiful house, and to have a good picture of himself, and a few choice old ancestors on the walls, he thought would be very fine.
Joshua took up his abode in the Edgecumbe mansion, the better to do his work.
He was a handsome youth, nearly twenty years old, with bright, beaming eyes, a slight but compact form, and brown curls that came to his shoulders. His London life had given him a confidence in himself, and in his manner there was a grace and poise flavored with a becoming diffidence.
A man who can do things well should assume a modesty, even if he has it not. If you can write well, do not talk–leave that to the man who can do nothing else. If you can paint, let your work speak for you.
Joshua Reynolds was young, but he was an artist in diplomacy. His talent, his modesty, his youth, his beauty, won the hearts of the entire Edgecumbe household.
He painted portraits of all the family; and of course all the visitors were called upon to admire, not only the pictures, but the painter as well.
A studio was opened in one of Lord Edgecumbe’s buildings at Plymouth, and he painted portraits of all the great folks thereabout.
On Christmas-Day, Seventeen Hundred Forty-six, the Reverend Samuel Reynolds died, but before his death he fully realized that one of his children was well on the way to fame and fortune.
The care of the broken family now devolved on Joshua, but his income was several times as much as his father had ever earned, and his responsibilities were carried lightly.
While at the house of Lord Edgecumbe, Reynolds had met young Commodore Keppel. In Seventeen Hundred Forty-nine, Keppel was placed in command of the Mediterranean fleet, with orders to clear the seas of the Barbary pirates. Keppel invited Reynolds to join him on board the “Centurion” as his guest.
Gladly he accepted, and they sailed away for the Orient with a cabin stocked with good things, and enough brushes, paints, canvases and easels to last several painters a lifetime.
* * * * *
It was three years before Reynolds came back to Plymouth. He had visited Lisbon, Cadiz, Gibraltar, Port Mahon and Minorca. At the two last-named places there were British garrisons, and Reynolds set to work making portraits of the officers. For this he was so well paid that he decided to visit Italy instead of voyaging farther with his friend Keppel.
He then journeyed on to Naples, Rome, Venice, Pisa and Florence, stopping in each city for several months, immersing himself in the art atmosphere of the place. Returning to Rome, he remained there two years, studying and copying the works of Raphael, Angelo, Titian and other masters.
Occasionally, he sold his copies of masterpieces, and by practising strict economy managed to live in a fair degree of comfort.
Rome is the hottest place in Summer and the coldest in Winter of which I know. The average Italian house has a damp and chill in Winter which clutches the tourist and makes him long for home and native land. Imagine a New England farmhouse in March with only a small dish-pan of coals to warm it, and you have Rome in Winter.
Rome, with its fever in Summer and rheumatism and pneumonia in Winter, has sent many an artist to limbus. Joshua Reynolds escaped the damp of the Vatican with nothing worse than a deafness that caused him to carry an ear-trumpet for the rest of his life.
But now he was back at Plymouth. Lord Edgcumbe looked over the work he had brought and called into the ear-trumpet that a man who could paint like that was a fool to remain in a country town: he should go to London and vanquish all such alleged artists as Hudson.
Keppel had gotten back to England, and he and Edgcumbe had arranged that Reynolds should pitch his tent in the heart of artistic London. So a handsome suite of apartments was secured in Saint Martin’s Lane.
The first work undertaken seems to have been that full-length portrait of Commodore Keppel. The picture shows the Commodore standing on a rocky shore, issuing orders to unseen hosts. There is an energy, dash and heroism pictured in the work that at once caught the eye of the public.
“Have you seen Keppel’s portrait?” asked Edgcumbe of every one he met.
Invitations were sent out to call at Joshua Reynold’s studio and see “Keppel.” There were a good many pictures displayed there, but “Keppel” was placed in a small room, set apart, rightly focused, properly draped, and lighted only by candles, that stood in silver candle-sticks, and which were solemnly snuffed by a detailed marine, six foot three, in a red coat, with a formidable hanger at his side. Only a few persons were admitted at a time and on entering the room all you saw was the valiant form of the doughty Commodore, the sea-mist in his face and the wild winds blowing his locks. The big marine on guard in the shadow added the last realistic touch, and the gentlemen visitors removed their hats and the ladies talked in whispers–they all expected Keppel to speak, and they wished to hear what he would say.
It is a great thing to paint a beautiful picture, but ‘t is a more difficult feat to hypnotize the public into accepting the fact.
The live Keppel was pointed out on the street as the man who had had his picture taken.
Now, people do not have portraits painted simply because they want portraits painted: they want these portraits shown and admired.
To have Reynolds paint your portrait might prove a repetition of the Keppel–who knows!
Sitters came and a secretary in livery took their names and made appointments, as is done today in the office of a prosperous dentist.
Joshua Reynolds was young and strong, and he worked while it was called the day. He worked from sunrise until sunset.
That first year in London he produced one hundred twenty portraits, besides painting various other pictures. This he could not have done without the assistance of a most loyal helper.
This helper was Giuseppe Marchi.
There are a half-dozen biographies of Reynolds, and from Boswell, Walpole and Burney, Gossips-in-Ordinary, we have vivid glimpses into his life and habits. Then we have his own journal, and hundreds of letters; but nowhere do we get a frank statement of the assistance rendered him by Giuseppe Marchi.
When Reynolds was in Rome, aged twenty-one, he fell in with a tatterdemalion, who proffered his service as guide. Rome is full of such specimens, and the type is one that has not changed in five hundred years.
Reynolds tossed the lad a copper, and the ragged one showed his fine white teeth in a gladsome grin and proffered information. He clung to the visitor all that afternoon, and the next morning when Reynolds started out with his sketching-outfit, the youngster was sitting on his doorstep. So they fared forth, Giuseppe carrying the kit.
Reynolds knew but little Italian–the boy taught him more. The boy knew every corner of Rome, and was deep in the history of the Eternal City–all he knew was Rome.
Joshua taught the youngster to sketch, and after the first few days there in Rome. Joshua rigged Giuseppe up an easel, and where went Joshua there also went Giuseppe.
Joshua got a bit ashamed of his partner’s attire and bought him better raiment.
When Reynolds left Rome on his homeward march, there, too, tagged the faithful Giuseppe.
After several months they reached Lyons, and Joshua counted his money. There was only enough to pay his fare by the diligence to Paris, with a few francs over for food. He told Giuseppe that he could not take him farther, and emptying his pockets of all his coppers, and giving him his best silk handkerchief and a sketching-outfit, they cried down each other’s backs, kissed each other on both cheeks in the Italian fashion, and parted.
It took eight days to reach Paris by the diligence, and Joshua only got through by stopping one day and bartering a picture for sundry loaves of necessary bread.
But he had friends in Paris, influential friends. And when he reached the home of these influential friends, there on the curbstone sat Giuseppe, awaiting his coming, with the silk handkerchief knotted loosely about his neck!
Giuseppe had thrown away the painting-kit and walked the three hundred miles in eight days, begging or stealing by the way the food he needed.
When Joshua Reynolds opened his studio in Saint Martin’s Lane, his faithful helper was Giuseppe Marchi. Giuseppe painted just as Joshua did, and just as well.
When sitters came, Giuseppe was only a valet: he cleaned the brushes, polished the knives, ran for water and hovered near to do his master’s bidding. He was the only person allowed in the model-room, and all the time he was there his keen eyes made a correct and proper estimate of the sitter. Listening to no conversation, seeing nothing, he yet heard everything and nothing escaped his glance.
When the sitting, which occupied an hour, was over, Giuseppe took the picture into another room, and filled in the background and drapery just as he knew it should be.
“Marchi does not sign and date the portraits, but he does all the rest,” said Garrick. And “Little Burney,” treading on thinner ice, once remarked, “If Sir Joshua ever embraces a fair sitter and imprints upon her forehead a chaste kiss, I am sure that Giuseppe Marchi will never tell.”
It is too late to accuse Sir Joshua Reynolds of ingratitude towards Giuseppe; he was grateful, and once referred to Marchi as “an angel sent from God to help me do my work.” But he paid Marchi valet’s wages and treated him like a servant. Possibly this was the part of expedience, for had Marchi ever gotten it into his head that he could paint as well as Sir Joshua he would have been worthless as a helper.
For forty years they were never separated.
Cotton disposes of Giuseppe Marchi by saying, “He was a clever colorist, but incapable of doing independent work.” Cotton might, however, have told the whole simple truth, and that was that Marchi was hands, feet, eyes and ears for his master–certain it is that without his help Sir Joshua could never have attained the fame and fortune he did.
* * * * *
In selecting his time for a career, Joshua Reynolds showed good judgment. He went into public favor on a high tide. England was prosperous, and there was in the air a taste for the polite arts. Literature was becoming a fad.
Within a short time there had appeared Gray’s “Elegy,” Smollett’s “Peregrine Pickle,” Fielding’s “Amelia” and Richardson’s “Clarissa Harlowe.” Here was menu to fit most palates, and the bill-of-fare was duly discussed in all social gatherings of the upper circles. The afflicted ones fed on Gray; the repentant quoted Richardson; while Smollett and Fielding were read aloud in parlor gatherings where fair ladies threatened to leave the room–but didn’t. Out at Strawberry Hill, his country home, Horace Walpole was running that little printing-shop, making books that are now priceless, and writing long, gossipy letters that body forth the spirit of the time, its form and pressure. The Dilettante Society, composed of young noblemen devoted to high art and good-fellowship, was discussing a scheme for a National Academy. Garrick was at the height of his fame; Hogarth was doing for art what Smollett did for literature; while two young Irishmen, Burke and Goldsmith, were getting ready to make English letters illustrious; Hudson was painting portraits with a stencil; Gainsborough was immortalizing a hat; Doctor Johnson was waiting in the entry of Lord Chesterfield’s mansion with the prospectus of a dictionary; and pretty Kitty Fisher had kicked the hat off the head of the Prince of Wales on a wager.
And so into this atmosphere of seething life came Joshua Reynolds, the handsome, gracious, silent, diplomatic Reynolds. Fresh from Italy and the far-off islands of the Southern seas where Ulysses sailed, he came–his name and fame heralded as the Raphael of England.
To have your portrait painted by Reynolds was considered a proper “entree” into the “bon ton.” To attempt to give the names of royalty who sat to him would be to present a transcript of Burke’s Peerage.
Unlike Van Dyck, at whose shrine Reynolds worshiped, Reynolds was coldly diplomatic in his relations with his sitters. He talked but little, because he could not hear, and to hold an ear-trumpet and paint with both hands is rather difficult. On the moment when the sitting was over, the patron was bowed out. The good ladies who lay in wait with love’s lariat never found an opportunity to make the throw.
Reynolds’ specialty was women and children. No man has ever pictured them better, and with him all women were kind. Not only were they good, but good-looking; and when arms lacked contour, or busts departed from the ideal, Kitty Fisher or Nelly O’Brien came at the call of Marchi and lent their charms to complete the canvas.
Reynolds gradually raised his prices until he received fifteen guineas for a head, one hundred for a half-length, and one hundred and fifty for a full-length. And so rapidly did he work that often a picture was completed in four hours.
Usually, success is a zigzag journey, but it was not so with Reynolds. From Seventeen Hundred Fifty-seven to Seventeen Hundred Eighty-eight, his income was never less than thirty thousand dollars a year, and his popularity knew no eclipse.
About the time the American Stamp Act was being pushed through Parliament, Reynolds’ studio was the neutral stamping-ground for both parties.
Copley, the Boston artist, gave Reynolds a bias in favor of truth; and when Townshend, the man who introduced the Stamp Act in Parliament, sat to Sir Joshua, the artist and sitter forgot their business and wrangled over politics. Soon afterward Sir Joshua made a bet with Townshend, a thousand pounds against five, that George Washington would never enter Reynolds’ studio. This was in response to the boast that Washington would soon be brought to England a captive, and Townshend would conduct him to Reynolds to have his picture taken.
The bet made a sensation and Reynolds offered to repeat it to all comers; and a score or more of sincere men paid over five pounds into the hands of Sir Joshua, and took his note for one thousand pounds, payable when Washington landed in England a prisoner.
Old Ursa Major had small patience with Reynolds’ political prophecies; he called America a land of pirates and half-breed cutthroats, and would have bet Sir Joshua to a standstill–only he had conscientious scruples about betting, and besides, hadn’t any money.
Goldsmith and Burke, of course, sided with Reynolds in his American sympathies, and Garrick referred to them as “My friends, the three Irish Gentlemen.”
A frequent visitor at the studio at this time was Angelica Kauffman, who deserves a volume instead of a mere mention. She came up from Switzerland, unknown, and made her way to the highest artistic circles in London. She had wit and beauty, and painted so well that Reynolds admitted she taught him a few tricks in the use of color. She produced several portraits of Reynolds, and Reynolds painted several of her; and the daughter of Thackeray wrote a novel which turns on the assumption that they were lovers.
There certainly was a fine comradeship existing between them; but whether Reynolds was ever capable of an all-absorbing passion there is much doubt. He was married to his work.
Reynolds had many intimate friends among women: Peg Woffington, Mrs. Clive, Mrs. Thrale, Hannah More, Fanny Burney and others. With them all there went the same high, chivalrous and generous disinterestedness. He was a friend to each in very fact.
When the Royal Academy was formed in Seventeen Hundred Sixty-eight, Reynolds was made its president, and this office he held until the close of his life. He was not one of the chief promoters of the Academy at the beginning, and the presidency was half forced upon him. He might have declined the honor then had the King not made him a knight, and showed that it was his wish that Reynolds should accept. Sir Joshua, however, had more ballast in his character than any other painter of his time, and it was plain that without his name at the head the Academy would be a thing for smiles and quiet jokes.
The thirty-four charter members included the names of two Americans, Copley and West, and of one woman, Angelica Kauffman.
And it is here worthy of note that although the Methodist Church still refuses to allow women to sit as delegates in its General Conference, yet, in Seventeen Hundred Sixty-eight, no dissent was made when Joshua Reynolds suggested the name of a woman as a member of the Royal Academy.
Sir Joshua did not forget his friends at the time honors were given out, for he secured the King’s permission to add several honorary members to the Academy–men who couldn’t paint, but who still expressed themselves well in other ways.
Doctor Johnson was made Professor of Ancient Literature; Oliver Goldsmith, Professor of Ancient History; and Richard Dalton, Librarian.
In this case the office did not seek the man: the man was duly measured, and the office manufactured to fit him.
When Sir Joshua died, in February, Seventeen Hundred Ninety-two, it was the close of a success so uninterrupted that it seems unequaled in the history of art. He left a fortune equal to considerably more than half a million dollars; he had contributed valuable matter to the cause of literature; he had been the earnest friend of all workers in the cause of letters, music and art; and had also been the intimate adviser and confidant of royalty. He was generous and affectionate, wise and sincere; a cheerful and tireless worker–one in whom the elements were so well mixed that all the world might say, This was a man!.
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